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The Tampa Bay Times needed new ways to engage with readers, so it started texting them

Guest Column

For our coverage of a historic election, the Tampa Bay Times wanted to implement a significant shift in how we interacted with our readers — so we decided to text it to them.

The Times, like the rest of the newspaper industry, is in the middle of an organizational paradigm shift as audiences inexorably move from print to online. This shift became mission-critical as restrictions brought on by the coronavirus pandemic earlier this year limited our traditional print publishing to two days per week

While we already had begun focusing on a subscription model online, the decrease in print days necessitated a focus on our digital offerings. These include our website, tampabay.com; the e-Newspaper, an electronic facsimile of a print newspaper that publishes seven days per week; our mobile app; social media accounts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram; and a host of other platforms.

We’ve found the same sorts of challenges with reader engagement that other outlets have experienced and have prioritized discovering new ways to bring readers into the fold by helping them feel a sense of ownership and develop a reliance on their Tampa Bay Times

Like other outlets, our audience is increasingly coming to Times products through their mobile devices. In the last 30 days, 70 percent of our readers found tampabay.com via mobile. It only made sense that we aim to engage our readers on their mobile devices in a way new to our audience.

In a year filled with historically newsworthy events, from the pandemic to a summer filled with protests, choosing a subject for our experiment was important. 

We settled on the 2020 election, a worthwhile subject that came with a built-in audience. In Florida, election news is always a potential flashpoint, considering how evenly split the electorate is among Democrats, Republicans and voters with no party affiliation. We had a deeply vested readership for our politics coverage, and no shortage of potential issues to discuss.

Key to the project was securing a grant from the American Press Institute’s Trusted Elections Network. Our goal was to provide our audience with candidate and issue coverage, as well as information about polling places, voter deadlines for early voting, mail-in ballot requests, any crucial Election Day information, and more.

The primary voice of our campaign was Tampa Bay Times political editor Steve Contorno, who would, in conjunction with the Times engagement team, craft text messages to send to readers. Because of Steve’s surname and the focus on providing useful background information via mobile devices, the project became ConText 2020.

Readers were able to enter a mobile number either through our online signups or by texting “context” to a phone number we provided. Those who opted in then had access to daily messages through Election Day, and beyond.

The backbone of this service was powered by Subtext, a text-based platform developed by Advance’s Alpha Group. Subtext works with several other publishers, including Vox Media, USA Today (and other Gannett properties), BuzzFeed News, and more. 

Subtext allows the audience to sign up their mobile phone numbers to get text messages about a subject, allowing the user to directly ask the host questions in a text message interface. The host, meanwhile, engages with those readers via a browser-based CMS, enabling any of a number of staffers to interact with the readers directly as an institutional or individual voice.

Our campaign began late in election season, soft-launching on Oct. 8 and continuing through Election Day and beyond, should the voting results be disputed. The signup goal in such a short time frame was a manageable 500 subscribers, or about 5 percent of the audience for Steve’s email newsletter, The Buzz. The goal was to send one message per day.

Here we decided on two different styles of messages: Omniscient Times voice for links, deadlines and information, and Steve’s specific voice any time he asked for questions or shared his thoughts on the subject he chose for the day. Steve would sign his name or otherwise indicated he was “speaking” when readers got those texts.

Both styles have proven popular, depending on the subject. Readers often ask Steve questions or simply make comments, showing that they are willing to engage with him on a new channel. It’s been quite remarkable to see how many of those readers support both Contorno and Times political coverage in general. 

Our generic texts (most often authored by engagement producer Bernadette Berdychowski) also received responses, giving us notable insight into what information generated the most interest. Registration and voting deadlines, both in-person and mail-in voting, proved valuable to readers. We also learned that they appreciated in-depth explanations of proposed state constitutional amendments and information about judges who faced retention elections, a subject that most outlets write about sparingly.

Signups increased steadily through the first three and a half weeks of our campaign, distributed primarily through our social media accounts. We saw a further increase once we promoted the platform on our e-newspaper and print newspaper — ultimately, we exceeded 500 verified subscribers by Election Day. Unsubscribe rates have held steady at about 5 percent of users.

Heading into Election Day, we pushed an information blitz via all our platforms, including Subtext. We prepared our readership to receive multiple messages directing them to Steve’s specific coverage on Nov. 3 of a live blog analysis, live video, and more offerings. Steve was providing this not only for the presidential election but for state and local issues, too.

We plan to continue our coverage beyond Nov. 3, for any election outcome, to keep answering questions and providing information to those readers on the topics they care most about. Of special note will be whether people still opt to receive the messages, as the content of those messages follows the news.

It’s our hope that our audience will stick with us, and view this foray into a different side of the mobile platform as another step in our evolving relationship-building beyond newsprint.

Joshua Gillin
Senior Editor, Engagement
Tampa Bay Times

Joshua Gillin is the Senior editor of engagement at the Tampa Bay Times. He is responsible for managing offerings connected to tampabay.com — email newsletters, podcasts, some video, some audio, and a whole lot more. In more than two decades of newspaper experience, he has written and edited just about every facet of journalism for newspapers in Philadelphia, Savannah, Pittsburgh, and beyond before coming to Tampa Bay in 2006. Twitter: @jpgillin

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